A Giroux “Daguerreotype” – the world’s first commercially-produced camera – is expected to set a world record price when it goes up for auction this May at WestLicht Auctions in Vienna. The previously undocumented camera has been in private ownership in northern Germany for generations and is in remarkable condition given it is 170 years old.

The wooden sliding-box camera was made in Paris in September 1839 by Alphonse Giroux, the brother-in-law of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, the inventor of the first practicable photographic process. Daguerre even signed the camera to verify its authenticity. Only a few of these cameras are known to exist worldwide and all of those are in public museums.

Every detail including the plaque signed by Daguerre, the lens, the black velvet interior and the ground-glass screen are in their original state and the camera also comes with the extremely rare original instructions in German. These instructions, entitled, “Praktische Beschreibung des Daguerreotyp’s” were published by Georg Gropius in Berlin 1839 and feature 24 12x20cm pages with 18 illustrations in 5 plates showing the equipment used for producing Daguerreotypes in accordance with Daguerre’s invention.

The cameras produced by Daguerre’s brother-in-law are more opulently finished that those of the competition and the selling price of 400 Francs was very high, representing approximately the annual income of an average working man at the time. There is no record of the total number of cameras that Giroux produced, but since cheaper and improved cameras came onto the market relatively quickly it is assumed that the numbers were limited.

Making Daguerrotypes is a relatively involved process and the camera was originally sold with all the equipment necessary for their production. This included fuming and mercury boxes, a spirit burner, the silver-covered copper plates and the necessary chemicals. In total all the required equipment weighed around 50 kg (110 lb).

How it works

The camera itself consists of two boxes made of different kinds of wood that slide into each other. The larger of the two, which has the lens attached to it, is fixed to the base plate. The back of the smaller box is either the ground glass plate or the holder insert and it fits into the forward box so that the whole camera is lightproof. The interior is lined with black velvet. In order to bring the image into focus the rear box is moved back or forwards along the wooden camera base.

It can then be fixed in position by means of a brass screw, while a fold-out mirror behind the ground-glass screen allows the image to be seen while standing upright.

Initially Daguerre used plates of pure silver but later switched to plates made of silver-plated copper to save on costs. Before the exposure was made the plates were fumed with iodine or bromine inside a special wooden box with the aid of a spirit burner. Under the influence of this fuming process, light-sensitive silver iodide formed on the surface of the plate.

In order to maximise the brightness of the image while focusing the lens’s outer brass fitting was removed. During the exposure the ground glass screen was exchanged for the (now) light sensitive plate (167 x 216 mm). Before the exposure was made the diaphragm was replaced and a swiveling cap served as a shutter. Daguerre suggested exposure times of between 3 and 30 minutes, depending on light conditions.

After the plate was exposed, the photograph was developed with the aid of mercury fumes which adhered to the surface producing a very faint silver image. Development and fixation in a salt or cyanide solution results in a positive image made of grey quicksilver. The tonality of the original pictures varied between grey and blue-grey but, after the introduction of gold toner, they could also be gold, purple or sepia-coloured.

Daguerreotypes are astoundingly finely nuanced and practically grainless – even when examined under a magnifying glass they exhibit very fine details. When they are framed in a way that excludes air they are extremely durable. Daguerreotypes are always unique, which is also one of the reasons why they are such sought after and desirable collectors’ items nowadays.

Going once…

Westlicht Auctions claim that a camera like this has never been offered for sale by auction before and anticipates it will significantly exceed the auction house’s own world record price of 576,000 euro, which was also for a camera from 1839. The camera's starting price is 200,000 euro, but it is estimated to sell for anywhere between 500,000 and 700,000 euro when it goes under the hammer on May 29 later this year.